Keep It in Your F****** Pants!

Recent Controversy Over “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” Brings up Arguments Over What is Acceptable to Show and What is Acceptable to Censor


Published: November 13, 2008

Recently the film “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” has caused a stir within the cinema industry. While Kevin Smith, the director, has fought with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over advertising and the rating, many theaters have openly rejected the screening of his newest film. On the other hand, these same theaters are playing “Saw V,” a graphically violent movie with many scenes of torture. Opinions of content aside, there is a discrepancy between what is acceptable and what is offensive when it comes to both violence and sex in cinema.

Stick figures stand in for the actors in the poster for “Zack and Miri.” (Courtesy of the Weinstein Company)

For writer/director Kevin Smith, the road to the release of “Zack and Miri” has not been an easy one. The trouble began when the MPAA smacked an NC-17 rating—the so-called “kiss of death”—on the film, prompting an appeal by Smith. Advertising, too, became an issue, when the film’s promotional posters were reprimanded for its sexual nature.

In “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary about censorship and the secrecy of the MPAA ratings board, Kevin Smith said that “if you choose not to accept the rating system, then your ads don’t really run.” Since the MPAA was set up in 1968 by the movie studios to eliminate censoring and establish a rating system, it has become the only system of regulation in films; therefore movie studios have a great deal of power when it comes to what is shown and what is censored. Besides the secrecy of the rating board member’s identities is the ambiguity of the so-called “aberrational behavior” which classifies movies as NC-17. Most importantly, according to, the MPAA’s official Web page, “nearly four times as many films have received an NC-17 for sex as opposed to violence.”

As if all this weren’t enough of an attack on “Zack and Miri,” in the film’s first week of release, many theaters opted not to screen the film, most notably the Utah chains run by Larry Miller. Cal Gunderson, Larry Miller’s spokesperson, told the New York Post that the film was “too close to an NC-17.”

However, Miller’s theaters are still showing “Saw V,” the fifth installment of a franchise that is notorious for its explicit and arguably gratuitous violence. It is notable that the violence of this film is not being brought to the table, while so much emphasis is put on bringing “Zack and Miri” down. “Saw V” contains many extremely violent scenes, including one in which a man chained to a table is split in half by a pendulum blade. One of the main issues is that violence and sexuality are two different things, and it is difficult to analyze violent and sexual content in the same fashion.

“It is a slippery slope. When do you decide something is not acceptable? Often, you might harm or offend people, but that is a chance we need to take. It is important we judge the whole piece. It is OK for people to not be comfortable with the material. You can boycott. You can protest. That’s perfectly fine, but to censor it is wrong,” said Michael Tueth, S.J., associate chair and professor of communication and media studies at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.

As for advertising, the posters for “Saw V” show a man wearing another person’s face over his own. “Saw V” advertisements could be considered just as offensive as the poster for “Zack and Miri,” which originally hinted at oral sex. Smith ultimately had the last laugh, though, when the poster was reworked to show two stick figures.

With “Zack and Miri,” the fact that the word “porno” is in the title has forced many newspapers, TV stations and public officials to stop promotions for the film.

“If they want to call the movie ‘Zack and Miri,’ that’s fine, but Zack and Miri cannot make a porno on my bus shelters,” said Rina Cutler, the deputy mayor of Philadelphia, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. It is true that advertising pornography on a bus stop would be inappropriate; however, the film is not a porno at all. It is actually a Judd Apatow-style romantic comedy. Yes, there is strong sexual content including graphic nudity, but that is why the film has an R rating.

The issue with “Zack and Miri” seems to be one of many in a continuing theme in cinema. There is an overwhelming attitude in Hollywood against sex. “We are desexualized. We are afraid of it,” said actress Maria Bello in an interview in “This Film is Not Yet Rated.” In 2006, many theaters, including those of Larry Miller, refused to play “Brokeback Mountain” on the basis that it involved a gay love story, even though the film would later be nominated for and win three Academy Awards. Last year, two films—“Lust, Caution,” which was rated NC-17 for explicit scenes of sexuality, and “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which dealt with the issue of abortion—did not make the cut for Academy Award nominations, even though both had been listed for Golden Globes.

“Zack and Miri” continues to not only be a better-reviewed movie than “Saw V,” but it continues to beat its box office numbers every weekend; however, theater owners may continue to show “Saw V” over “Zack and Miri” simply because it reaches a bigger demographic.

Tueth said, “We are a violent prone culture. We just need stimulation. Violent video stimulates and reinforces violent tendencies.” Violent films may be kept in theaters for the overall appeal, and studios may use violent movies to bring in more money. “Zack and Miri” is simply another victim, and movies will continue to be released under “censored conditions.” It is often the case, not just in cinema, when hierarchy takes the power of communication away from the maker before the message reaches the audience. We, as the audience, must realize this process of censorship.